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Confronting COVID-19

Chronic stress during pandemic can cause strange physical symptoms

The Conversation: If you've been experiencing unusual physical symptoms recently, the stress of the COVID-19 pandemic may be the reason.

Woman in a mask is stressed out.
Chronic stress can lead to inflammation, which can result in physical symptoms as well as mental health symptoms. (Unsplash / Engin Ankyat)

During the current COVID-19 pandemic have you been wondering why you’re getting headaches more often? Or stomach aches? Or feeling itchy or getting pimples? Or why your periods are irregular or more painful than usual? Exciting recent science suggests that the answers may lie in our body’s biological reactions to stress.

Our biological stress response system — the hypothalamic-pituitary-adrenal (HPA) axis — evolved hundreds of millions of years ago to help our vertebrate ancestors quickly mobilize energy to confront imminent, life-or-death threats, such as predator attacks. In the short term, this system is exquisite in its efficiency and crucial to survival.

The ConversationThe problem with our current situation is that it has been going on for months, and the end is not clearly in sight. Chronic stress sends the HPA axis into overdrive, with effects felt throughout the body. These symptoms can even serve as further sources of stress. Understanding why our bodies are reacting in these ways can help us develop strategies to prevent stress from getting under our skin.

The biological stress response

When animals perceive a threat in their environment, the HPA axis stimulates the adrenal glands to release the hormone cortisol. Cortisol, along with adrenaline, work to pump oxygen to the major muscles to enable the animal to fight or escape.

This “fight/flight” response produces physical symptoms such as heart palpitations and chest tightness (the heart pumping oxygen to the major muscles), and stomach butterflies, nausea and tingling (blood leaving the stomach and extremities to get to the major muscles).

The HPA axis also interacts with the immune system to help with the aftermath. Cortisol is a potent anti-inflammatory and binds to large numbers of receptors in the skin to help repair wounds and fight infection.

The HPA axis doesn’t know the difference between the life-or-death threat of a predator attack and modern stressors. So, in the early stages of this crisis, if your stomach did flip-flops, or you felt your heart racing, when reading about surges in COVID-19 cases, your body was doing what it was designed to do even though at that moment you were not in any imminent physical danger.

The problem of chronic stress

A predator attack is time-limited. In contrast, the COVID-19 pandemic has been going on for weeks, and may be compounded by social isolation, job or financial insecurity and care-taking responsibilities. Unfortunately, all the HPA axis knows is that it needs to release stress hormones when we perceive a threat in our environment. So, if we perceive our environment as threatening all the time, then the HPA axis will release these chemicals all the time.

One of the most pronounced effects of long-term cortisol release is glucocorticoid resistance. This is when cells in the immune system become less sensitive to the anti-inflammatory effects of cortisol. As a result, cortisol starts to increase inflammation throughout the body and brain.

So, your itchiness and rashes? All of the cortisol receptors in your skin may no longer be receptive to cortisol’s anti-inflammatory effects and instead, chemicals are released that inflame the skin.

Your headaches or stomach aches? Painful periods? All of these symptoms can also be the result of inflammation in these organ systems caused by chronic HPA axis activation.

Even psychological symptoms, such as feelings of depression or loneliness, have been linked to the release of pro-inflammatory chemicals caused by chronic stress.

A woman jogs in a park with green grass.
Just 20 minutes of moderate exercise reduces inflammation and has strong mood-lifting effects. (Unsplash / Arek Adeoye)

Taking control of your stress response

Much of what is perceived as stressful on a day-to-day level is not specific to contracting the COVID-19 virus, but instead is the result of changes that we have had to make in our lives. A switch to working from home, or not working, has disrupted our sleeping, eating and activity schedules that regulate our internal circadian clock. Staying indoors means lower exercise and activity levels. Many people, especially those living alone, are socially isolated from friends and loved ones.

Disrupted circadian routines, lack of exercise and social isolation have all been strongly linked to dysregulation of the body’s stress and immune systems, and release of pro-inflammatory chemicals in the body and brain.

Fortunately, even small positive changes in these areas can have strong stress-reducing effects. Keeping a regular routine by going to bed, getting up and eating at consistent times each day has been linked to greater overall health by promoting healthy function of the HPA axis and immune system. Even 20 minutes of moderate exercise, which inside could include exercise videos or jogging around at home, regulates the HPA axis, reduces inflammation and has strong mood-lifting effects.

Finally, talking regularly with friends and loved ones, even remotely or at a distance, is one of the best things you can do to protect against the biological and psychological effects of stress. Remember, we’re all in this together!The Conversation


Kate Harkness, Professor of Psychology and Psychiatry and Director of the Mood Research Laboratory, Queen's University, Ontario

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.

How to help graduating students cope with missed milestones

The Conversation: High school seniors will miss important events due to the pandemic, but offering resources, alternatives, and the confidence that they're going to be fine is what matters.

A lone high school graduate looks out onto an empty yard.
With the response to the COVID-19 limiting large gatherings, such as graduation, young adults who were about to embark on a new chapter in their lives are finding the disruption in normal life events particularly stressful. (Unsplash / Jeremiah Lawrence)

Change is stressful for all of us. It is therefore no surprise to find that, in general, people are finding it difficult to cope with the COVID-19 restrictions. None of us knows exactly how to cope with the fallout from this unprecedented situation.

While adults find this forced confinement difficult, young adults who were about to embark on a new chapter in their lives are finding the disruption in normal life events particularly stressful.

Not only are they missing things such as proms or a graduation ceremony, but they’re also missing other potentially life-altering events: the track and field championship for which they’d worked hard all year just so they could compete; the Royal Conservatory exam to evaluate just how much they’d improved their musical skills; the summer job that would help them earn money and build a resume for future employment.

Developmental milestones

And now, the worst cut of all, in many cases, no in-person fall classes at college or university. This means be no formal initiation into the freshman class of 2020 for students.

It means not having to decide what personal mementos to bring as you leave home or no tearful goodbye with parents. For those who planned to still live at home, it means not carefully packing one’s knapsack for the first day at campus orientation and no bonding with classmates. Now, this next chapter will most likely happen in their current bedroom, virtually.

These developmental milestones help young adults mark their progress as they transition from child to adult, and yet now these important events have all been shelved — at least until the pandemic ends.

In my role as clinical director of the Regional Assessment and Resource Centre at Queen’s University, I hear on a daily basis how the pandemic is affecting the mental health of high school seniors.

Our centre runs an online transition program for students with either learning or mental health disabilities who are going to college or university next fall. We are hearing a lot from these students about the stress that the current closures and social distancing are causing them.

Not what they signed up for

Right now, this disruption has meant not only that they have to change the way they learn in high school, but also that they have to take more personal responsibility for engaging in learning.

This was not what they signed up for, and they find that their teachers are (in general) less adept at managing the online learning environment than they are. These students are learning that it is difficult to change from an in-person to an online learning environment. From some of their parents, we are also hearing that pressuring their children to do their assigned virtual homework is causing friction in their parent-child relationships.

A number of the high school students with whom we work also worry that the change to online learning may mean that they miss out on some of the key foundational knowledge needed to help them succeed. They are, quite rightly, concerned that they won’t have the necessary knowledge and skills to successfully deal with first-year curricula.

A graduating student takes a group photo of her classmates.
Despite traditional graduation ceremonies being cancelled, parents and loved ones can still find ways to celebrate their graduating student. (Unsplash / MD Duran)

What parents and loved ones can do

So, what can parents and significant others in the lives of these young adults do right now to help high school seniors cope?

1. Don’t jump in to fix things: Agree and appreciate that this is a stressful time for them, but don’t jump in and try to fix things. Allow them to have their feelings and allow them to figure out how to cope with those feelings. Ask them: “What would you like me to do to help you right now?” Offer suggestions if they ask. Give the message that you have faith that they’ll find a way to cope.

2. Help youth find positive coping strategies to manage disappointment: In life, we all have to deal with loss and disappointment, and the more we can help young adults learn positive coping skills at these times the better prepared they will be to deal with such negative situations in the future. Learning skills like mindfulness meditation or deep breathing and relaxation can help, as can learning how to create a worry list to contain anxiety and worry.

3. Honour their achievements, even if it is virtually: Help them identify what they wanted most or wish could have happened these past few months. How can they honour what they’ve achieved? Can they or family find ways to celebrate now? Plan ahead for a big party once social distancing is over? Consider arranging a videoconferencing meeting with important members of their social circle and have speeches. Have everyone tell the young adult how proud they are of their achievements and reinforce for them what being part of their lives means to that particular individual.

4. See the current pandemic challenges as an opportunity to build resiliency: Post-secondary counselling centres in North America have seen an increase in student mental health problems partly due to a lack of resiliency because many of these students haven’t previously dealt with disappointment or even minor stressful events. The COVID crisis has the potential to act as a yardstick for students. Once they get through this they’ll feel better able to cope with other future stressful situations.

5. Focus on the positive: Having to learn to manage your own time, learn from online content and set your own schedule — these are all valuable transition skills that students need, whether going from high school to post-secondary education or eventually to a job. There are lots of good resources about how to cope with the demands of online learning or a lack of structure in learning environments, and many library websites have shared this type of content.

6. Limit media consumption: Young adults spend much of their time online and this is a good way to keep in touch; but too much is not good, especially if some of those interactions have the potential to be negative or increase anxiety. Studies have shown a strong link between time spent online and negative mood symptoms.

One of the biggest challenges we hear about from post-secondary students we see at our centre is students with attention problems wondering: How can I limit my use of electronics? This might be the time to investigate installing apps that limit the amount of time you can get online.

Remember, teens and young adults, in general, can learn to become quite resilient if left to figure things out on their own and given positive support. Send the message that you have faith they’ll succeed, not that you’re waiting to rescue them when they fall apart.The Conversation


Allyson G. Harrison, Associate Professor of Psychology and Clinical Director, Regional Assessment & Resource Centre, Queen's University

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.

Preserving Canadian democracy

Experts in the School of Policy Studies are investigating the pandemic’s impact on government.

Photo of Canadian Parliament
The op-ed series in the Ottawa Citizen will explore topics such as democracy, executive accountability, public services, and government debt.

Since the Queen’s School of Policy Studies (SPS) was founded in 1970, its experts have brought a scholarly voice to public debates about the most pressing issues in Canada. Now, as the country navigates its way through the pandemic, SPS has formed working groups to study how governments have been adapting to respond to the COVID-19 crisis. As their studies progress, these working groups will be sharing their findings with both the scholarly and broader communities through white papers, articles, presentations, and other methods.

The Governance Working Group (GWG), one of the collectives formed in SPS, has now entered the conversation on how the pandemic has affected the Canadian government by writing a series of op-eds that are being published in the Ottawa Citizen. Titled “The Coronavirus Challenge to Government in Canada,” this series will feature eight articles informed by the expertise of the authors. The series began in late May and will run to mid-July.

“In the School of Policy Studies, we have many fellows whose expertise is especially relevant during the pandemic, when governments at all levels are adapting their operations. And we wanted to make sure that their voices were being heard,” says Kathy Brock, Professor and Senior Fellow, SPS and a member of the GWG. “Our goal is to inform decision makers and citizens about how the political system is responding to COVID-19, and to explain how governments are being changed by this situation.”

Covering critical topics

The op-eds will address a range of topics that the GWG finds especially critical at this moment. Some of the subjects include democracy, executive accountability, public services, and government debt. In the debut op-ed, Brock explores the strengthening authority of the prime minister and cabinet during the pandemic. The second op-ed, by Lori Turnbull, discusses the powers of the deputy prime minister and their ramification for Canadian democracy. Gregory Tardi published the third op-ed on June 8, in which he explains possible methods Canada could use to prevent the erosion of democracies in times of crisis like COVID-19.

“Universities play a critical role in keeping societies informed, especially in times like this. Fellows in the School of Policy Studies and faculty members across Queen’s all recognize this, so it was easy to find people who were eager to join the working group and contribute to the op-ed series,” says Brock.

While the working groups started as an SPS initiative, the GWG has welcomed expert participants from across Queen’s. The school wanted to ensure that these groups were interdisciplinary, so that each topic would be examined from a range of academic perspectives. Of the 14 members of the GWG, many are SPS fellows but others come from the Faculty of Law and the Department of Political Studies. The SPS fellows also bring a breadth and depth of practical policy experience, spanning the local to the federal levels of government.

Sharing their findings widely

Following the op-ed series, the GWG will turn its attention to producing a white paper. Each of the SPS working groups will produce a similar white paper, outlining their findings and providing policy recommendations. Once the white papers are complete, the GWG and the other groups will find ways to share their findings widely with policy makers, scholars, and the public.

Follow “The Coronavirus Challenge to Government in Canada” on the Ottawa Citizen, where new op-eds in the series will appear each week until mid-July.

Examining COVID-19’s economic impact on Ontario

New modelling tool shows a loss exceeding $40 billion across the province through May.

In the face of the COVID-19 pandemic, Queen’s University economists are helping policymakers build a roadmap for economic recovery efforts. The focus is on providing local and provincial leaders with the best available high-frequency economic projections to use alongside health projections when making decisions.  

Through Limestone Analytics, a Kingston-based research and analytics firm, the group of Queen’s researchers has developed a COVID-19 policy analysis tool. Already adapted for Ontario the preliminary  estimates imply that COVID-19 led to a loss in Ontario’s GDP of 9.4 per cent in March, 23.7 per cent in April, and 26 per cent in May compared to what would have been expected. This implies a loss of over $40 billion across the province or $7,500 per household. 

“These are huge numbers, and that is just where we are after May,” said Huw Lloyd-Ellis (Economics). “Losses will accumulate going forward. How big they end up being depends on how quickly the province can relax restrictions on various industries, and how the behavior of firms and consumers change going forward.” 

The team refers to their framework as the STUDIO model, a flexible framework that can be adapted for a wide variety of scenarios. The acronym stands for “Short-Term Under-capacity Dynamic Input-Output” model, reflecting its intended use for month-to-month scenario building during economic disasters. 

“We don’t pretend that we can predict the future in terms of how the disease will spread, or how government policy, and consumer and firm behavior will change in the coming months,” says Christopher Cotton (Economics), the Jarislowsky-Deutsch Chair in Economic & Financial Policy at Queen’s. “The strength of STUDIO is in its flexibility, and its ability to provide economic projections for any number of alternative scenarios that we may throw at it.”  

The model produces an array of projections to show what will happen to the economy in different situations, depending on how the disease spreads, and how governments, consumers and firms respond to it. Understanding how economic outcomes respond to policy choices under alternative scenarios will help governments plan their response to COVID-19 over the coming months.  

Even under a very optimistic scenario, where the economy reopens rapidly and largely recovers by the end of the year, the preliminary estimates are that Ontario will experience a 9.9 per cent loss in its annual GDP, which amounts to over $83 billion in total or almost $15,000 per household. While, as always, these estimates are subject to considerable uncertainty, they are consistent with several other private and public sector forecasts.  

Potential jumps in the transmission of the disease or delays in reopening the economy could easily increase these numbers. The model’s projections under a more pessimistic schedule for reopening the economy shows an average GDP loss exceeding $20,000 per Ontario household.  

The researchers are also extending their analysis to the local level and breaking down the results by industrial sectorFor Kingston and Frontenac County, for example, the projected GDP losses are slightly less than the Ontario average, but certain industries such as those related to travel and healthcare, are taking a big hit. Such insights can help policymakers direct support to the places and the people that need it most. 

The team has made some of their projections available through an interactive dashboard on the Limestone Analytics website 

“The dashboard provides just a taste of what the model can do,” says Bahman Kashi (Economics), President of Limestone Analytics. “We are expanding our analysis across regions, provinces and states in North America, and we are adapting our models for use in developing countries. We are also partnering with several organizations and other groups at Queen’s to build a comprehensive policymaking dashboard that will bring together both economic and health projections in one place for all of Canada.” 

The team has worked closely with members of the Eastern Ontario Leadership Council to understand the data needs of local leaders, and Mitacs to help support graduate student participation on the project. 

OUA cancels fall term sport programming amid COVID-19 concerns

Ontario University Athletics and U SPORTS have announced the cancellation of fall sports programming and championships up to Dec. 31, 2020. This decision applies, provincially and nationally, to all varsity sport programs, including those that do not compete in OUA and U SPORTS.

The decision was made based in consultation with medical and public health authorities, and with the health and safety of student-athletes, coaches, administrators, officials, and fans as the number one priority.

“As a varsity community we are all disappointed by this news, and we know how difficult and heartbreaking this is for our student-athletes,” says Leslie Dal Cin, Executive Director, Queen’s Athletics & Recreation. “We know better than most how much our student-athletes, coaches and supporters dedicate their lives to their sport, and the pride they have in playing for Queen’s.   We will be providing support to students during this difficult time, and look forward to a return to play as soon as it is safe to do so.”

OUA and U SPORTS have not made a decision about the winter season. This will be confirmed later in the fall term. The OUA will be closely monitoring the ongoing health considerations and viability for these future opportunities over the coming months. Updates will be provided as they become available, and answers to commonly asked questions will be continually updated on the Gaels website.

“This decision and announcement raise many new questions and concerns about what activity might be possible this fall,” says Dal Cin. “The future will be determined by the evolving nature of the pandemic, government directives, public health and University guidance. We very much want to see our varsity and recreation programs back in action, and will re-open facilities and re-start in-person training and activity when we are permitted and it is safe to do so.” 

Athletics and Recreation will continue to provide remote training programs and opportunities for student-athletes and teams/clubs to connect online, as well as virtual fitness class that are accessible to the community.

Canada West and Atlantic University Sport have announced they too have cancelled their respective fall-term sport schedules.

Pandemic highlights the need for a surveillance debate beyond ‘privacy’

Privacy regulation can’t keep pace with the supersystems collecting, analyzing and using personal data.

A silhouetted man stands in front of a digital display.
Governments are implementing surveillance technologies to monitor and control the spread of COVID-19. (Unsplash / Chris Yang)

The coronavirus pandemic has stirred up a surveillance storm. Researchers rush to develop new forms of public health monitoring and tracking, but releasing personal data to private companies and governments carries risks to our individual and collective rights. COVID-19 opens the lid on a much-needed debate.

For example, Google and Apple teamed up to offer privacy-preserving contact-tracing help. The scramble for data solutions is well-meaning, but whether they work or not, they generate risks beyond narrowly-defined privacy.

Everyone has extensive digital records — health, education, employment, police contact, consumer behaviour — indeed, on our whole life. Privacy is much more than shielding something we’d rather not share; surveillance also affects our chances and choices in life, often in critical ways.

Early computerization obliged governments to see that regulation was needed as personal data was collected for more and more purposes. At first the data came from credit cards, driver’s licences and social insurance; today it’s constant device-use. But privacy regulation alone can’t keep pace with today’s supersystems for data collection, analysis and use that generate the kind of negative discrimination that demands data justice.

Surveillance and profit

Shoshana Zuboff’s book The Age of Surveillance Capitalism is making headlines for its close analysis of how Google achieves its surveillance, why and with what consequences. Zuboff insists that a new mode of economic accumulation has been rapidly emerging ever since internet-based platforms — led by Google — discovered how to monetize the so-called “data exhaust” exuded by everyday online communications: searches, posts, tweets, texts. Beyond the loss of privacy, she sees the destruction of democracy and behavioural modification, citing a former Facebook product manager who says the “fundamental purpose” of data workers is to influence and alter people’s moods and behaviour.

One cannot miss Zuboff’s cri de coeur and its scathing rebuke to the “radical indifference” of these platforms. But what will it take to persuade us that today’s surveillance has become a basic dimension of our societies that threatens more than personal privacy? Surveillance is complicated, arcane and apparently out-of-control but those don’t excuse our complacency. Rather, they’re reasons for digging into some of the main dimensions of surveillance, prying open black boxes and reasserting human agency.

Let’s disturb some common assumptions that surveillance is about video cameras, state intelligence and policing, producing suspects and challenging privacy. Google assuredly does surveillance, which is commonly defined as “any focused, routine, systematic attention to personal details, for the purpose of control, influence or management.”

Two survellance cameras on a white wall.
Personal devices — mainly smartphones — provide a way to constantly track and monitor our movements, habits and consumption patterns. (Unsplash / Pawel Czerwinski)

It’s not just CCTV cameras, it’s also smart devices

Yes, it’s our laptops, phones and tablets. Surveillance is now digital and data-driven.

For too long, the stereotypical icon of surveillance has been the video camera. The French roots of the word surveillance means to “watch over,” which is what cameras do. And these are becoming smarter, when enhanced by facial recognition technology.

Clearview AI, for instance, scrapes billions of images from platforms such as Facebook or Google, selling services to major police departments in the United States and, until recently, Canada.

But today, what deserves to be the stereotypical icon is the smartphone. This, above all, connects the individual with corporations that not only collect but analyze, sort, categorize, trade and use the data we each produce. Without our permission, our data are examined and used by others to influence, manage or govern us. Data analysis enables prediction — and then “nudging” — of specific population groups to buy, behave or vote in hoped-for ways.

It’s not just the state, it’s the market

While the state and its agencies often overreach through intelligence and policing strategies, it is the market and not the state that holds the cards in the surveillance game.

Few noticed in the early 20th century that department stores, like Syndicat St-Henri in Montréal, kept detailed customer records, giving or withholding credit according to their status.

A pivotal moment was 9/11 when high-tech companies, craving customers after the dot-com bust, offered their services to government.

Today, our massively augmented data profiles indicate value to businesses. Those data are valuable to others too, like election consultants.

Surveillance is for sorting

Surveillance and suspects once belonged neatly together — those who were thought to be miscreants were watched. But in this big data era, all personal details are up for grabs.

What French sociologist Jacques Ellul worried about in 1954 has transpired: the police quest for unlimited information makes everyone a suspect. But Ellul never guessed how this could morph into a global network of systems, far beyond policing, in which everyone becomes a target.

But everyone is not targeted in the same way. Surveillance — whether for welfare, commerce or policing — sorts populations into categories for different treatment. This social sorting works in marketing to organize consumers. In China today, social credit systems are used by the government and commerce to monitor and rank citizens’ behaviour and social capital.

This is not only about privacy, it’s also about data justice.

Surveillance is a challenge to digital rights, because it is based on fundamental inequalities and unfair practices. Vulnerable groups discover their disadvantages are deepened.

Privacy laws rightly protect an individual’s right to privacy of movement, home and communication in a democratic society. But we need a radical new direction, prompted by our knowing how data analytics, algorithms, machine learning and artificial intelligence are reshaping our social environment. The analysis and uses of the data have to be addressed, invoking new categories such as digital rights and data justice.

Surveillance challenges

Just scratching the surface of 21st-century surveillance reveals how vastly things have changed. The landscape of surveillance has shifted tectonically from following suspects, watching workers and classifying consumers to monitoring and tracking everyone — now for public health — on an unprecedented scale.

Privacy is undoubtedly a casualty, and so are basic freedoms of democracy, expectations of justice and hopes for social solidarity and public trust. These demand serious attention, not just from policy-makers and politicians, but from computer scientists, software engineers and everyone who uses a device.

The stakes are high, but the future is not foreclosed.The Conversation


David Lyon, Director, Surveillance Studies Centre, Professor of Sociology, Queen's University.

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.

Incoming Dean of the Faculty of Health Sciences to advise province on pandemic response

The Government of Ontario has named Dr. Jane Philpott a special advisor on a new health data platform that will improve prevention and response to COVID-19.

Dr. Jane Philpott
Incoming Dean of the Faculty of Health Sciences Dr. Jane Philpott has been named by the provincial government as a special advisor on a new health data platform. 

Several Queen’s experts have played an active role in helping the Government of Ontario respond to the ongoing pandemic. Jane Philpott, who begins her term as dean of the Faculty of Health Sciences on July 1, is now joining the effort as well.

On June 4, the province announced that Dr. Philpott had been appointed as the special advisor to support the design and implementation of the new Ontario Health Data Platform, a tool that will help researchers and health systems better respond to COVID-19.

“Whether on the frontlines of health care or as a medical educator or in this new role as special advisor, I'm honoured to be part of Ontario's fight against COVID-19,” Dr. Philpott said in a release issued by the Ontario government. "This integrated data platform is an essential element in the province's response to the pandemic. I look forward to watching how it will facilitate a broad range of health research and support quality improvements in clinical care.”

The Ontario Health Data Platform is being developed in consultation with the Ontario Privacy Commissioner. The information that the platform will gather will help researchers to increase detection of COVID-19; discover risk factors for vulnerable populations; predict when and where outbreaks may happen; evaluate the effectiveness of preventative and treatment measures; and identify where to allocate equipment and other resources.

“Dr. Philpott has extensive leadership experience in the health care system and her advice will be invaluable as we finalize the creation of the Ontario Health Data Platform,” said Christine Elliott, Deputy Premier and Minister of Health, in a release issued by the Ontario government. “This data platform will provide our world-class researchers and health system partners with secure access to better and more consistent population data, improving decision-making in health care and aiding our efforts to beat COVID-19.”

At the federal government level, Dr. Philpott served Minister of Health, Minister of Indigenous Services, and as President of the Treasury Board. She was announced as the next dean of Queen’s Faculty of Health Sciences in February and will succeed Richard Reznick in the role.

To learn more about the Ontario Health Data Platform and Dr. Philpott’s appointment, see the Ontario government’s website.

To learn more about how Queen’s experts are playing a leading role in advising the Ontario government’s response to COVID-19, see the interviews the Gazette conducted with Troy Day and Chris Simpson. Dr. Day, a professor in the Department of Mathematics and Statistics, is serving on the Provincial COVID-19 Modelling Table. And Dr. Simpson, Vice-Dean (Clinical) of the Faculty of Health Sciences, is serving as the clinical science lead on Ontario Health’s COVID-19 Health System Response Oversight Table.

Innovative research advancing understanding of COVID-19

The Southeastern Ontario Academic Medical Organization funds six new projects to help fight the global pandemic.

Modifying existing antiviral drugs for better outcomes and revealing the mechanisms of a mysterious blood clotting syndrome are among six new COVID-19 research projects being pursued by researchers and clinician scientists at Kingston Health Sciences Centre (KHSC), Kingston General Health Research Institute (KGHRI), and Queen’s University. The research is supported by funding totalling $670,000 from the Southeastern Ontario Academic Medical Organization (SEAMO).  

“These researchers are recognized as leaders and innovators in their respective fields, and their work has the potential to significantly advance global understanding of this complex and perplexing disease,” says Dr. Steve Smith, Vice-Dean Research, Faculty of Heath Sciences, Queen’s, Vice President, Health Sciences Research, KHSC, and President & CEO, KGHRI. 

The list of funded projects is below: 

Stephen Archer and Victor Snieckus - Synthesis and preclinical testing of novel small molecule therapies for COVID-19 

Currently no drugs have been proven effective in randomized clinical trials for treating the severe respiratory effects of COVID-19. Drs. Archer (Medicine) and Snieckus (Chemistry) are confronting this challenge on two fronts. Firstly, they will modify existing antiviral drugs to improve their metabolism and efficiency and reduce their toxic side effects. On a second front they have identified that SARS-CoV-2 kills cells and may impair oxygen sensing by damaging mitochondria in lung cells. They will explore a novel mitochondrial pathway to combat the “happy hypoxemia (low oxygen without appropriate shortness of breath), which characterizes COVID-19 pneumonia, and to prevent cell death by protecting mitochondria from SARS-CoV-2. Sussex Research Inc. (Ottawa) is collaborating in the antiviral drug synthetic work and dissemination of the results.   

Paula James and David Lillicrap - Coagulopathy: Understanding and Treating a Novel Entity  

Drs. James (Medicine) and Lillicrap (Pathology and Molecular Medicine), leading researchers in clinical and molecular hemostasis, are studying the links between COVID-19 coagulopathy, an unexplained and potentially fatal blood-clotting syndrome associated with SARS-CoV-2, and von Willebrand Factor (VWF), a blood clotting protein. They are collaborating with researchers at St. Michael’s Hospital (Toronto) and Vermont Medical Center who are studying the effects of the blood thinner heparin on COVID-19, which has been shown in preliminary research to help these patients. The role of VWF in this disorder has not yet been studied, and the KHSC and KGHRI researchers aim to gain better understanding of the mechanisms of VWF in COVID-19 coagulopathy, potentially leading to the development of new treatments.    

David Maslove and Michael Rauh - COVID-19 and the Genetics of Mortality in Critical Care  

Drs. Maslove (Medicine) and Rauh (Pathology and Molecular Medicine) are part of an international genetics study examining why some patients are affected more severely by COVID-19 than others. They will be looking at the genomes of patients admitted to intensive care units across Ontario and then comparing them to those of a healthy control population. Using advanced computing techniques, they will be able to look at hundreds of thousands of subtle genetic variations across the population, to determine which of these are associated with outcomes. Knowing more about these variations will lead to new strategies for fighting the virus.  

Martin Petkovich, Jacob Rullo and Martin tenHove - Coronavirus infection of the ocular mucosa to model infection and systemic immunity 

Drs. ten Hove (Ophthalmology), Rullo (Ophthalmology), and Petkovich (Biomedical & Molecular Sciences) are studying local and systemic immune responses to SARS-CoV-2 infection using a physiological model that will examine how the virus infects the mucosal layer of the eyes. They will also determine the efficacy of administering a vaccination via this route to see if it generates systemic immunity against coronaviruses, and then use these results to study how the disease progresses in vaccinated and non-vaccinated models.    

Robert Siemens and Charles Graham - The Role of BCG-induced innate immune memory in the protection against coronavirus   

Countries that use the vaccine Bacillus Calmette Guerin (BCG) to prevent tuberculosis show lower rates of coronavirus infection than those who do not. Intriguingly, this vaccine has also been used to successfully treat bladder cancer. Drs. Siemens (Urology) and Graham (Biomedical & Molecular Sciences) believe that BCG enhances the body’s innate immune system. Their research aims to understand the immune-system mechanisms that lead to these protective benefits, and whether this vaccine could be used to protect against SARS-CoV-2, the coronavirus that causes COVID-19.    

Stephen Vanner and Prameet Sheth - The application of metabolomics to enhance detection of COVID-19 and predict disease severity: A proof-of-principle study   

Drs. Vanner (Gastrointestinal Diseases Research Unit) and Sheth (Pathology and Molecular Medicine) will use specialized mass spectrometry to study the metabolites found in nasopharyngeal (upper throat) samples of COVID-19.  Their aim is to identify the unique signature of these tiny molecules, compared to other causes of respiratory infections such as the common cold. This metabolomic signature holds promise as a more sensitive, rapid and accurate identifier and predictor of the severity of the disease than current methods. It will also enable future studies on COVID-19 detection, prediction of disease severity, and virus identification in asymptomatic individuals. 

These projects are examples of research confronting COVID-19 being undertaken within the Kingston and Queen’s community. The Vice-Principal (Research) also recently announced the first round of results for the Rapid Response competitionfund and support research projects that will contribute to the development, testing, and implementation of medical or social countermeasures to mitigate the rapid spread of COVID-19 

Lessons learned from remote learning

Megan Edgelow
Megan Edgelow, an assistant professor in the School of Rehabilitation Therapy, writes about the process of transitioning the course OT852 – Group Theory and Process to a remote learning format with students designing online group sessions. (Supplied photo)  

The following blog is written by Megan Edgelow, an assistant professor in the School of Rehabilitation Therapy, and first published through Dean of the Faculty of Health Sciences Richard Reznick’s Dean on Campus blog.

This spring has unfolded in some unexpected ways for first-year students of the MSc in Occupational Therapy (OT) program. Students returned to campus in early March, fresh from their first two-month clinical placements across the province, and the country, ready to dig into a spring term of learning while applying their recently expanded clinical skills. Just one week of face-to-face learning took place before students left campus and courses moved online due to COVID-19, and students once again found themselves scattered across the country when learning resumed online in late-March.

For my teaching, the move online presented some challenges in OT852 – Group Theory and Process. This course traditionally blends group theory and practical group leadership experiences, with teams of OT students designing and leading health-oriented groups for community volunteers in the Clinical Education Centre of the Faculty of Health Sciences. While theory may lend itself to online lectures and textbook readings, the applied learning activities in the course were more difficult to reconceptualize. Thankfully, with some creative thinking, and the flexibility of the OT students, all the learning objectives could be met remotely.

My course team and the students turned our usual face-to-face class times into regular Zoom sessions covering the necessary group theory, and then used the “breakout rooms” feature of Zoom to allow the students to work in teams. These smaller online rooms provided the students with a virtual environment where they could effectively engage in group collaboration, including the designing and planning of OT group sessions, while continuing to receive essential formative feedback from instructors.

To replace the in-person Clinical Education Centre experience, further creativity was needed. This year, the OT students designed “Healthy Aging” groups, creating content to address the physical, emotional, social and spiritual factors that influence the aging process, responding to the performance and engagement issues that the aging process can bring. Teams of students designed online group sessions around a variety of topics, including falls prevention, physical activity, leisure activity, time use and routines, spirituality, and coping skills for use in daily life and with the stress of COVID-19. Students then recruited adults and older adults from their own lives, including parents, grandparents, aunts, uncles, family friends, and neighbours to volunteer as their group participants.

ORemote learning OT852 – Group Theory and Processver the course of two weeks in May, 10 teams led and recorded three group sessions each, for a total of 30 “Healthy Aging” group sessions, with over 50 community participants.

Feedback from the participants was overwhelmingly positive. They learned new things about staying healthy later in life, as well as ways to cope in daily life and during the global pandemic, and they appreciated the opportunity to connect remotely with the OT students and other participants during a particularly isolated time. Some participants even asked to keep in touch with each other to keep applying their learning and supporting one other.

For myself and my co-instructors, who had the pleasure of watching the recorded group sessions and providing the OT students with feedback on their leadership skills, the learning was clear. Our students designed creative, engaging and supportive sessions for their participants, learning about leadership in a new way during an unprecedented time in health care.

Given the ongoing need for flexibility in health service delivery, and the expanding nature of telehealth and remote health care, this learning experience sows the seeds for these OT students as future action-oriented, responsive and adaptive leaders. This evolving health care environment continues to provide opportunities for Occupational Therapists to lead in health systems adaptations, addressing issues of performance and engagement, and focusing on meaning, purpose and connection with patients and clients as their health journeys unfold in real time.

Educating future frontline health care professionals

Kingston hospital sites will provide unique learning opportunities for health sciences students during COVID-19.

Three health care professionals are seen as they work on a medical procedure.
As of June 1, approximately 200 students from the Schools of Medicine, Nursing, and Rehabilitation Therapy at Queen’s University will return to local Kingston hospitals to complete clinical placements and clerkships. (Photo by Matthew Manor / KHSC)

Health care professionals, including doctors, nurses, and therapists, are some of the frontline workers being hailed as heroes for their efforts supporting communities during the COVID-19 pandemic. For students entering these professions, the current crisis has posed challenges to course requirements, potentially affecting graduation timelines, in a context where frontline professionals are needed more than ever before.

As of June 1, approximately 200 students from the Schools of Medicine, Nursing, and Rehabilitation Therapy at Queen’s will return to local Kingston hospitals to complete clinical placements and clerkships that are key to their future frontline work.

Following the outbreak of the coronavirus in March, leaders from Queen’s, in consultation with Kingston Health Sciences Centre (KHSC) and Providence Care, made the difficult decision to temporarily suspend student placements as part of the ramping down of services and to preserve resources. Now, because of several factors, including a particularly low prevalence of the virus in the Kingston region, local teaching hospitals and centres are now able to slowly reintroduce students from Queen’s into the clinical environment.

“We have been keen to have students in the Faculty of Health Sciences return to their clinical placements,” says Richard Reznick, Dean, Faculty of Health Sciences. “Not only do they play an important role in the delivery of health care at our hospitals, they will be re-entering in a very unique context that presents incredible learning opportunities.”

The university worked closely with the regional hospitals and KFL&A Public Health to ensure that the students will be reintroduced to the system in a way that prioritizes safety.

“We are working with our partners in education and have developed safety measures to make sure students are phased into the hospital setting in a way that will keep them, our patients, and our staff as safe as possible,” says Michael Fitzpatrick, Chief of Staff at KHSC.

All students who are returning to complete their clinical placements and clerkships are required to self-quarantine in Kingston for two weeks prior to starting at the teaching hospitals. While they are on-site at KHSC and Providence Care, students will follow staff safety policies and procedures, including completing training on current COVID-19-related protocol, adhering to the staff screening process, and conserving personal protective equipment.

Additionally, students will be required to self-monitor for symptoms throughout their programs. They must be symptom-free for two weeks in order to participate in any in-person activities.

“As an academic health sciences centre, students play a vital role in the care of our patients, clients and residents. We’re looking forward to welcoming them back to our hospital and community programs safely,” says Allison Philpot, Director of Medical Administration at Providence Care. 

Once-in-a-Lifetime Learning Opportunity

While it may not be business-as-usual, the clinical environment will offer a once-in-a lifetime opportunity for students, many of whom are close to graduating and in search of permanent employment.

"Having the opportunity to complete my clinical placement means that I can work towards graduating on time, allowing me to use the nursing skills I've learned at Queen's to compassionately care for patients and families,” notes Bayley Morgan, School of Nursing, Class of 2020. “I am eager to join our heroic nurses and health care workers in supporting those affected by illness and injury, and in contributing to a safe and respectful practice environment."

The students look forward to returning to their clinical settings and credit university and hospital administration for developing creative solutions to allow them to meet their educational goals, while keeping their safe return to clinical duties at the forefront of efforts.

"The Class of Meds 2021 is eager to return to help serve the health care needs of Kingstonians and is confident that the reintegration into the clinical learning environment will go smoothly,” says Josh Gnanasegaram and Rae Woodhouse, Class of 2021 Co-Presidents, School of Medicine. “We see these coming months as a pivotal time in the re-shaping of health care systems as a result of the COVID-19 pandemic, and we are excited to be actively involved in that process.”

The reintroduction of students to clinical placements is part of a gradual and evolving re-opening of in-person activities that is being led by Queen’s University administration.


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